Meeting parents who are angry and upset comes with the territory when you are the Head of a school. In this article, Saubia Fatemi elaborates on the principles that should guide the communication between heads and parents when things become challenging.

One of the greatest responsibilities that any administrator will face at a school is parent communication and interaction. We always hope that these meetings will be for a positive reason. However, every educator, no matter how good they are, will at some point need to meet with parents who are angry or unsatisfied. Dealing with angry parents can be a highly stressful part of the job. In situations such as these, it is imperative that one considers their words, tone and body language. A small error can make a situation spiral out of control and have a negative and lasting impact on the relationship of the school and parent and thus the student.

When dealing with unhappy parents, here are a few guidelines for conducting meetings, which can make a significant difference:

Always Make Yourself Available
If a parent has a concern, no matter how big or small, they should be able to meet with you right away. Small situations can often spiral out of control because parents are unable to address it with anyone. Anytime a situation is left unresolved, it festers and becomes a much bigger issue than it needs to be. Tackle the problem immediately and efficiently.

Meet Face to Face
Always avoid lengthy conversations on the phone. Meeting face to face is essential when trying to resolve any difficult situation. Communication is not just about your words, but also your body language. It is very easy for words and tones to be misjudged when speaking on the phone or over email. If a parent calls to discuss something, understand the basic issue and then insist that you meet in person to resolve the situation.

Prepare for the Meeting
Before the meeting gather as much information as possible about the situation, the parents and the student. Meet with teachers and any other faculty or staff member who may be able to contribute information. Keep detailed notes with you during the meeting so that you have all the information at hand.

Meet the parents only when you are ready and have the time. Parent meetings can often run long; a head who is trying to end the meeting should not rush parents. Parents want to know that you are available for them, so clear your schedule and make yourself available.

What to Do During a Meeting
If the situation is an emotional one, ensure that you are calm before you meet with the parent. It will be pointless conducting a meeting when all parties are high on emotion and unwilling to listen. For a productive meeting, you need to be in control of the situation and this requires that you be in control of yourself.

Set the tone and always listen
Regardless of the reason a parent is coming to see you, it is important to welcome them with a smile and extend your arm to shake their hand. This instantly communicates to the parent that you respect them and are willing to listen and find a solution. This 30-second interaction will set the tone for the remainder of your meeting.

Often the parent may not be angry with you, the head, but at another individual or event that may have occurred. Therefore it is essential that you allow them to speak while you listen. Often, by the time a parent is done speaking they are already calmer and therefore more likely to welcome a solution from you.

Put yourself in the parents’ shoes
It is essential to remember that parents are usually in your office because they are concerned about their child. Reassuring them that you understand how they feel and why they are meeting with you will generally make the parents feel calmer.

Keep in mind that parents may also be upset because they have received information from their child and have only one side of a story. Receive all the details from them, listen to what they have to say and see how this weighs against the information you have. Offer your information only once the parents have finished speaking and you have assured them that you have heard what they have to say. Remember to provide the information you have using your words wisely. Avoid any “judgmental” words. Stay as factual as possible and keep emotion and assumptions out of the conversation.

Work towards finding a solution
Depending on the situation, see what solutions the school can offer to the parents. Sometimes simply assuring the parent that you will look into the situation and find possible solutions so that there isn’t a future concern will calm them down.
If you, the school, are wrong, admit it and apologise. I am surprised at how many parents tell me that they are shocked when a head or principal will admit that they are wrong. Ensure that a similar situation will not take place and you will take the appropriate action.
If the situation is otherwise, explain to the parents that although you understand how they are feeling, there are certain things, which can or cannot be done. Be firm but polite. Don’t apologise for the rules the school has. Just explain that these rules need to be followed.
Keep the same rules and expectations for all the parents. If parents feel that what the school says can be changed or altered, your words mean less and you will have a much more difficult time ending the meeting on a positive note.

In most cases meeting and speaking with the parents can resolve a stressful situation. Keeping an open door policy, in which parents can come in and meet with administrators, can go a long way in making parents feel that they and the school are on the same team.

Having parent involvement programmes is also essential in creating a working relationship between both parties. Most parents want the best for their child. By having them be an active part of your school you are creating a strong, sustainable relationship. Parents gain a much better understanding of how schools function, why rules exist and how children learn when they are directly involved with the school. Today there is more and more research to show that when parents are involved closely with schools, students score higher grades, their attendance improves, they are more motivated and they have higher self-esteem. This in turn means that parents are satisfied with their child’s performance and therefore with the school.

Saubia Fatemi has completed her BA from USA in Management and Psychology. After working in the US for several years she returned to Pakistan and has since been associated with Haque Academy where she is the Director of Admissions.

October 2013